In This Article Color

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies and Special Issues
  • Abstraction
  • Monochromes
  • Between Abstraction and Narration
  • Realism
  • Cinema and Painting
  • Synesthesia
  • Animation
  • Digital Color
  • Black and White versus Color
  • Costume
  • Light
  • Race and Representation
  • Theory
  • Methodology
  • Close Analyses of Single Films
  • Auteurist Readings of Color
  • Color Processes
  • Restoration and Colorization
  • National Cinemas

Cinema and Media Studies Color
Brian Price
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0089


The history and theory of film has, from the very beginning, been characterized by subfields devoted to major stylistic elements and constitutive features: movement, sound, editing, narration, and acting. Color—for a variety of reasons—has emerged as a subfield of film studies only very recently. For a long time, the perceptual difficulty of color, as well as the more empirical problems of color fading, appeared as obstacles to enduring and reliable studies of color practices and processes. However, over the last few years, a great deal of work has begun to emerge. New studies of color processes and color technologies are being written. In many respects, histories of color technology have been the most common approach since the 1930s. They have tended toward quasi-scientific accounts of how each color system worked, or else they have investigated the industrial development of new systems and the problems (aesthetic or market-related) that each system has attempted to solve. Today, we are seeing more complex accounts of the historical development of color, including broader concerns with aesthetic and perceptual issues—even where a scholar remains concerned with the development of this or that color process—and an increased attention to neglected moments of national production beyond the borders of America. Interpretive work on color has likewise proliferated, from close analyses of single films to broader studies of a single director’s color style. And in a manner long familiar to art history, more general accounts of color styles are emerging. Color has also become a central concern for film theory; the so-called perceptual difficulty of color now sits at the center of the frame, complicating ontological, affective, and epistemological claims about the moving image in new ways. At a broader, institutional level, the work of numerous scholars who deal with the relation between cinema and painting as a question of color has had the salutary effect of broadening the interdisciplinary character of film as an object of study. The entries below, then, are intended to provide a sense of the major discourses and research on the roles of, and issues concerning, color in film, and they include statements that were articulated and research that was undertaken as color processes began to emerge in the early part of the 20th century, as well as very recent accounts of color across a wide variety of methodologies and sensibilities.

Anthologies and Special Issues

Owing to the relative youth of color studies in film, much of the book-length work comes in the form of anthologies and special issues devoted to color—although this is changing very quickly. There are a number of monographs on color and film currently in production. Consequently, much of the work on color in film has a pleasantly speculative character, whether in the form of empirical research on early color technologies, which open up rich possibilities for further research—historical and theoretical—or else if the form of theoretical questions, which attempt to open up conceptual problems that might in turn impact the historical and interpretive work that might be done. One sees this, for instance, in Berriatúa, et al. 1998, Dalle Vacche and Price 2006, and Hertogs and de Clerk 1998. All of the anthologies and special issues listed in this section work, in one way or another, to establish the ground and range of color study, but they do so in a way that cannot help but resist the imposition of a single methodology. Where new archival material appears, so too do theoretical questions about color vision and perception; where new theories of color appear, so too do new bodies of film, industrial records, and interpretive frameworks. Indeed, Tomadjoglou 2009, Dall’Asta 1995, Everett 2007, and Street 2010 are important collections that begin to establish methods and vocabularies for color study that builds on the suggestive character of the early color work collected in the other volumes.

  • Berriatúa, Luciano, et al. All the Colours of the World: Colours in Early Mass Media. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Edizione Diabasis, 1998.

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    This collection, half of which is written in Italian, is composed largely of essays devoted to technological histories of early color processes.

  • Dalle Vacche, Angela, and Brian Price, eds. Color: The Film Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

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    This collection is largely made up of previously published essays on color, with a few notable exceptions. It is divided into four parts: “Color Technology and Visual Style,” “Color Theory,” “The Filmmaker as Color Theorist,” and “Case Studies.” It includes essays by contemporary film scholars as well as classical film theorists such as André Bazin, Rudolf Arnheim, and Sergei Eisenstein.

  • Dall’Asta, Monica, Guglelmo Pescatore, and Leonardo Quaresima, eds. Il colore nel cinema muto: Atti del 2. Convegno internazionale di studi sul cinema, Udine, 23–25 marzo 1995. Udine, Italy: Dipartimento di Storia e Tutela dei Beni Culturali, Università degli Studi di Udine, 1995.

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    This anthology is composed of essays given at a 1995 conference on color in Udine, Italy. The essays are largely concerned with questions about color in silent cinema and early film theory, and the book features contributions from notable theorists and historians such as Richard Abel, Jacques Aumont, André Gaudreault, Tom Gunning, and William Uricchio.

  • Everett, Wendy, ed. Questions of Colour in Cinema: From Paintbrush to Pixel. New Studies in European Cinema 6. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007.

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    This book is divided into three sections: “Practices of Colour: The Technical Dimensions and the Construction of Meaning,” “Aesthetics of Colour,” and “Race, Gender, and Colour.” Questions of Colour in Cinema features a wide range of methodologies, from material histories and cultural studies of color style and technologies to phenomenological and post-structural theories of color perception.

  • Hertogs, Daan, and Nico de Clerk, eds. Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Film. Papers presented at the “Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Film” workshop in Amsterdam, 1995. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

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    Largely an open discussion of the various issues related to color in silent film, which are not—owing to the workshop form—taken up in systematic fashion, though the issues and ideas remain relevant.

  • Street, Sarah, ed. “The Colour Dossier.” Screen 51.4 (Winter 2010): 379–409.

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    A very useful dossier on color, marked by different methodologies.

  • Tomadjoglou, Kim, ed. Special Issue: Early Color. Film History: An International Journal 21.1 (June 2009).

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    The first of two consecutive special issues (continued in Film History: An International Journal 21.2), edited and introduced by Kim Tomadjoglou, on the various dimensions of early color processes, styles, and cultural implications of early usage. The essays, which are detailed throughout, tend toward empirical historical investigations that nevertheless have much to offer regarding broader questions about the development of color style and technology.

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